Monday, August 31, 2009

Take out TAKE OUT from your video source of choice; Q & A with filmmaker Sean Baker

One of the most won-
derful (but seldom used) aspects of movies is the ability of filmmakers to put us in touch with people we see around us daily to whom we give little or no thought -- except in how they can serve our momentary needs. Last summer the DVD release of Steve Barron's Choking Man put us in close touch with an undocumented Latin American immigrant to New York City who works in a Queens' diner. Now comes another film, made several years earlier and finally making its DVD debut tomorrow, that does something similar, this time with a Chinese illegal who works as a delivery boy for one of New York City's ubiquitous Chinese take-out restaurants. TAKE OUT, the surprisingly fair-minded, carefully detailed look at a single day in the life of young immigrant Ming Ding, heralds the collaborative effort of filmmakers Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou, and a very fine movie the pair (shown below) has made.

That this particular day has been chosen by the filmmakers with an eye to drama and conflict adds immense pressure to both Ming Ling's life and the viewer's enjoyment of what, otherwise, might have been an ordinary session of non-stop food preparation and deliveries. But so well researched, cast and performed is Take Out that the film rarely fails to fascinate at every step of the way. Who'd have thought that a roster of delivery clients could be so interesting? Baker and Tsou allow just the right amount of time to be spent with each so that the individual and the way s/he interacts with Ming Ling is specific and meaningful, without -- praise be -- falling into more than minimal cliché.

The main character's co-workers are also well perceived and fleshed out; each actor is excellent but the standout is Wang-Thye Lee as Big Sister, who handles everything -- from order-taking to cursing out a cus-
tomer in Mandarin -- like a pro. In the leading role, Charles Jang (shown at right) could hardly be better. He makes Ming Ding's enor-
mous reticence fully understandable and by film's end has won our hearts ten times over. Watch the DVD extras to discover what a well-spoken and alert young man Mr. Jang can be, then watch his audition (shot, as all the auditions were, on the street) to understand why he got the role. On the DVD's Extras, in the Q&A with filmmakers and cast, Jang, who speaks fluent Mandarin, reveals an interesting biographical note that, had it surfaced pre-audition, might have cost him the role. (These interviews, by the way, are among the best I've seen made for any film, no matter what its budget.)

My single caveat with Take Out has to do with its finale. Suddenly every coincidence missing from the rest of the movie seems to surface in a single delivery. It was too much for me, but the film has accumulated such viewer good-will by this time that you'll probably let it pass. In any case, the denouement helps remedy the situation, and you're left with a movie that, once watched, will ensure that you look at your next (and next and next) Chinese restaurant delivery man with open eyes, more respect and -- one hopes -- a bigger tip.

So impressed with Take Out's combination of small budget and big brain & heart was TrustMovies that he contacted co-writer/director Sean Baker (shown below, with camera) for a quick Q&A via email:

TrustMovies: Why did it take so long -- five years -- between the finished film and this video release?

Sean Baker: Actually, it took three years for the film's theatrical debut and another year for the film's DVD release. The film was shot in June 2003. Cavu Pictures picked up 'Take Out' at the tail end of its festival circuit run in mid-2005. A number of factors led to its three year delay in getting to the screen. I was busy co-directing one of the 'Greg the Bunny' incarnations for IFC. Plus, Cavu was busy with a couple of other theatrical releases and we were in a holding pattern. Then money became an issue, as Cavu needed time to raise funds for the release. Finally we set the date for June 2008. When it comes to independent film (at least my independents), the pace is glacial. I had even gone ahead and made my new film Prince of Broadway while waiting.

We did not have a DVD distributor locked down when we did our theatrical hoping that a successful run would result in a DVD distributor being interested in the home entertainment release. Although the film ran for 9 weeks in NYC and had moderate play in Los Angeles and San Diego, DVD labels didn't come running because of the state of the industry right now. It's still quite a gamble to release an alternative art-house film without household names in the cast. So it took the Independent Spirit nomination to truly legitimize the film in the eyes of some distributors. It was at that point that Don at Kino Entertainment expressed interest. In my eyes, being released by Kino is a badge of honor. They have released the classics that have been such an influence on my career -- plus their American Independent division is top-notch. We're in the company of directors like So-Yong Kim and Azazel Jacobs. So once we signed with them, I needed a couple of months to pull together the DVD extras.

How long did the screenplay take to write, and how long did it take to shoot the film?

The screenplay took approximately a month-and-a-half. It transformed when we were on set because the actual employees of the restaurant gave us input and suggested dialogue. Production lasted approximately 30 days. However, the shooting schedule was very unconventional. We were shooting in a working restaurant so we could not dictate our hours. Some days were 4 hours and others were 14.

What was the collaborative process like and how did you divide the duties?

Shih-Ching and I wrote the script together in English. She then translated the dialogue to Mandarin. We set it up in a way that I could keep up with the actors by having both scripts on set. I could follow them line by line so both Shih-Ching and I could judge the actor's delivery and the scene's pacing. On the technical side, we were forced to take on the responsibility of camera and sound because we couldn't afford to hire a crew. Shih-Ching and I handled sound relying most of the time on wireless mics so that we did not have to boom. And I covered the camera.

As far as working with actors goes, we gave our actors as much freedom as they wanted. However, there wasn't much improvi-
sation in the Mandarin language portion of the dialogue because of the fact that I don't know the language and wouldn't have been able to keep up. However, my favorite scene in the film is an impro-
vised scene between Charles (above, right) and Johnny (above, left). In the scene, Johnny gives Charles advice on smiling when he makes a delivery. I had no idea how good the scene was until afterwards, when Shih-Ching translated it for me. Charles Jang, the film's lead, became a vital part of the filmmaking team once the film was completed, aiding us in poster and website design.

I notice, via the IMDB, that you’ve collaborated as a writer on two films but as a director on only one. And now, with Tsou again on Left-Handed Girl. Do you want to talk about this new film at all? Is there any chance that Prince of Broadway will appear on DVD ori n theaters anytime soon?

Yes, 'Prince of Broadway' has had a great festival run. I've traveled the world with it. It will get a theatrical release sometime in the new year (2010). And the next film, 'Left-Handed Girl' is a family drama that takes place in Shih-Ching's hometown of Taipei, Taiwan. We will once again use an urban setting as a character in the film. More specifically, the chaotic, colorful nightmarkets of Taipei will be the backdrop.

What was your budget for Take Out? (I realize that this was back in ’03.)

We made 'Take Out' for $3000. When the film was finally moving forward with a theatrical release, we were granted an extremely generous favor that allowed us to master and color-correct the film properly for no cost. My guessimate is that this service would have cost us $15,000 at least.

If there’s anything else you’d like to soapbox about, feel free….

Well, Shih-Ching and I are very grateful for everybody who has been supportive over the last five years. It has been a long road but it proves that perseverance pays off.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Cockburns' AMERICAN CASINO: how & why the banking/mortgage bubble burst

The how and why of the meltdown come first in Leslie and Alexander Cock-
burn's new documen-
tary AMERICAN CASINO. These are followed by the human cost, as the couple tracks just a few of the Baltimore residents who lost their homes in what the city of Baltimore -- which is now suing Wells Fargo Bank -- calls illegally preying upon its black community. This is

nasty, dirty stuff, and it may bring to mind some of the nasty, dirty stuff we saw going on in Alex Gibney's ENRON documentary of 2004.

The Cockburns first remind us that on December 15, 2000, the fuse that finally detonated the banking/mortgage crisis was actually lighted. On that day, former Senator Phil Gramm, then Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, introduced a 262-page bill (as a rider to the 11,000-page Appropriations Bill) which excluded from regulation -- both Federal and State -- "the financial instruments most at the heart of our present meltdown," and which effectively, the filmmakers posit, enabled our financial markets to turn into a kind of very big gambling casino. They remain so today.

The Cockburns cover other enablers, as well: the ratings agencies such as S&P and mortgage bonds salesmen the likes of David Attisani, who, while blaming the meltdown on greed, refuses to take one iota of responsibility for selling -- for 12 years! -- the mortgage bonds that underpinned the bubble/meltdown on Wall Street, and in the process outlasting three of the four banks he worked for during that time. We also hear from the savvy financial reporter Mark Pittman and from Michael Greenberger, a director at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission during the Clinton years, who witnessed the banks fighting off all efforts at regulating their trillion-dollar derivatives business.

When we arrive at the human face of the loss at hand, things get more per-
sonal -- and painful -- but perhaps not quite as eye-
opening or informative. (Consider the differences between this documentary and Trouble the Water -- which also covers a national problem personally, from the inside out, but does so in a manner more real and refreshing -- perhaps because the camera and microphone are in the hands of street people rather than "documentarians.") One of these foreclosures is of the home owned by Denzel Mitchell, shown above, a Baltimore high school teacher who teaches, ironically enough, a course on American Justice. Another home is owned by therapist Patricia McNair, shown below. Regarding these and other mortgages, the infor-
mation we hear from professionals such as John Relman, civil rights attorney, and Cara Stretch, who counsels homeowners threatened with foreclosure, devastates any claims that the homeowners were given a fair deal or should be held responsible for the lies told and omissions made by their banks and brokers. Let's hope that Baltimore vanquishes Wells Fargo -- and that our current President grows a set of balls big enough to at least attempt to force real regulation on Wall Street and the financial sector.

The movie ends with a look at the oncoming plague of mosquitoes and rats breeding in, respectively, the abandoned swimming pools and garbage dumps (like the one shown below) that many of these foreclosed-on homes have become. Narrative filmmakers are probably already composing a sci-fi scenario around this little nugget, and audiences will no doubt flock to the finished film in the kind of hordes that stay far away from movies made in the documentary form. Well, reality sucks, don't it?

American Casino, distributed via Argot Pictures, begins its New York City run (after already opening in Chicago, San Francisco and Milwaukee) this Wednesday, September 2, at Film Forum; during its run there will be several Q&A's with the filmmakers. You can find other playdates, cities and theaters here. There's a DVD release is in the offing, as well.

All photos are from the film itself, except that of the Cockburns:
photo by Gary Gershoff, © and courtesy of

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Docs on DVD--suggestions for viewing: Trouble the Water/Garden/Dr. Bronner

The documentary form seems to be growing stronger with each passing month, and the last several have been particularly rich. Released to DVD recently are three must-sees, the first of which drew a lot of attention upon its limited theatrical release in August of 2008, as campaigning for the upcoming Presidential election was in full swing. I'm rather glad I did not see it then, however. Because of what we see in this film, the anger provoked by the Bush administration's mishandling of the Katrina/New Orleans combo might have sent me into non-recoverable apoplexy.

Watching TROUBLE THE WATER today is still difficult, but knowing that a new administration is in power and hardly likely to treat its citizens in the same manner eases some of the pain. As you may have heard, the documentary is the work of four major players: Kimberley Rivers and her husband Scott, the pair who shot much of the footage we see and who lived through Katrina, and filmmakers Carl Deal and Tia Lessen who chanced to meet the other pair and discovered the amazing footage. Together the quartet has made the best thing I've seen to come out of the Katrina debacle. Because so much of the movie has been shot by and of the pair, their friends, neighbors and relatives, the footage has a "street" reality that puts to shame most other films that strive for this. (Kimberley and Scott at various times admit to their selling drugs to get by, and at one point, late in the film, Kimberly performs an original "rap" number that struck me as better than much else of this devalued form of music that I have heard.) Deal and Lessen add bits of Bush-speak and Nagin-speak (the New Orleans mayor) to the mix in small but effective doses, and I suspect that they have helped supply the "form" of the movie. The collaboration is a wonderful success. Be sure to watch the DVD extras for updates and an interesting look at Mayor Nagin in a conversation with Kimberley.

THE GARDEN tells the years-long, involved and very up-and-down story of some acres of land in the middle of South Central Los Angeles that, decades ago -- post-riots -- were given to the com-
munity as a garden project. The fine documentary, which was nominated for an Academy Award last year, allows us to understand some of the dirty, back-
room politics of L.A. and how fighting City Hall is rarely easy, pleasant or successful. We meet a lot of people in this 80-minute film by Scott Hamilton Kennedy, and our opinions of them grow and change over its short running time. Kennedy clearly has his heart with the gardeners -- mostly Latin immigrants, many of whom may be undocumented -- rather than with the real estate interests or politicians, but he goes out of his way to show us both sides of the issue, as honestly as he can. This is an ugly story in many ways, and unfortunately an all-too-typical one. But you finish the documentary as much filled with awe and appreciation for those who have tried to help as frustration with the self-preserving "system" that beats them down.

Goodness exists! You'll find it in another recent movie which I am delighted to admit has turned me on to a wonderful soap product that I've been using ever since I saw DR. BRONNER'S MAGIC SOAPBOX, the documentary directed by first-
timer Sara Lamm. I recommend that you try the soap, too, and I suspect you may if you finish this fascin-
ating film, which is about-- shock of shocks -- a capitalist company that is doing everything it can to remain "progressive," while at the same time trying to honor its founder and his beliefs. A wildly religious man, Emanuel H. Bronner and his all-one-god faith makes a strange bedfellow with his pure castille soap. But what the hell: the duo has more longevity and appeal than any other soap I can think of -- with or without the religious "instruction" that appears on every label. The film tells the history of Dr. Bronner, one very weird duck, and his early "organic" cleaning product. We also meet his children and grandchildren, who are continuing the not-always-so-good Doctor's legacy (the doc himself has gone to his reward) . They're a fascinating bunch and so is the doctor himself, as well as his soap product. Theres something quite strange about this man, with his German accent and tendency toward screaming while he talks, that brings to mind Adolph Hitler. I guess it goes with the territory. His sons, daughter and grandchildren are interesting, too, as is their commitment to keeping his soap (and religion) alive. Just to witness one son's encounter with a musician/skateboarder in his hotel -- and what comes of this -- the movie is worth more than most. Watch the DVD extras for updates, too.

Friday, August 28, 2009

New DVD Recs: LONDON TO BRIGHTON, BOB FUNK, Gretchen Mol and more....

As usual, viewing and reporting on new independent and foreign films is taking up even more time of late, so I am way behind on advisories regarding what to see on DVD. However, there have been a few films just too good not to recommend, so today, I'll cover a few of these:

The tiny and unheralded LONDON TO BRIGHTON was, over here in the USA at least, a surprise for many of us because its director Paul Andrew Williams was actually nominated for a BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer in 2006 (he won five other major awards for this film at various fests and from British newspapers). His tiny-budget movie about two females on the run -- done, from the looks of things, on the fast and cheap -- is very nearly perfect in terms of moment-to-moment storytelling, acting, filming, editing and all the rest. This film is so good -- so fast, economical (79 minutes plus credits), gritty and real -- you'll hardly know what's hit you till its over and you've had time to think things out. Even then, I don't imagine you'll discover many flaws.

The acting is splendid all-round. Leading lady Lorraine Stanley (shown at left) gives a simply phenomenal performance that, were the film better-seen, would have put her on the map for good) and the tiny moments of decency amidst the squalor are greatly appreciated, as much for their lack of sentimentality as for the respite they provide from the gathering gloom. Mr. Williams went on to write and direct one of the funniest, and again, under-seen thriller/slasher movies in memory, The Cottage (my review for Greencine appears here). He has written (but not directed) another scare movie as yet unreleased on these shores but said to be quite fine: The Children. Could some enterprising distributor grab this one, please? Mr. Williams is, so far, a movie-maker to be treasured, and thankfully London to Brighton is one of those rare films that is impossible (even for critics like me) to oversell.

BOB FUNK, on the other hand, could be oversold because it takes some time working its spell. Yet it is an almost pitch-perfect, indepen-
dent comedy that is unlikely to be mistaken for any other movie you can think of. This is because its leading character and the actor who portrays him -- Michael Leydon Campbell -- are originals. So is, from the sound and look of the film, its writer/director Craig Carlisle, who has managed the rarely-accomplished feat of having his main character grow and change believably -- and in a major way. From a beginning, in which you think this man with the odd name is perhaps the most ridiculous character you've encoun-
tered, through to the end, when you've long ago cried "uncle" and are now firmly in Funk's corner, the experience is, well, wondrous. As good as is Mr. Campbell, it is also a thrill to see the lovely, funny Rachel Leigh Cook in a decent role again at long last (she's the love interest here); the fabulous and more often seen on TV than in film, Grace Zabriskie ; Amy Ryan, smashingly good in a small role; and a fine newcomer named Terri Mann, as Funk's analyst: a wonderfully conceived and performed character that helps make up for decades of (perhaps somewhat deserved) "shrink" abuse. Do not, under any circumstances, miss this one. And if you are initially put off, I beg you to stick with it. You'll thank me.

And now to the work of an actress who just seems to get better and better -- after a debut complete with overheated fanfare -- the cover of Vanity Fair -- followed by the kind of backlash that would have killed any weaker performer. Yes, we're talking about Gretchen Mol. I've never seen her give anything less than a good performance and she's usually much better than that. Yes, she's staggeringly beautiful in a blond, fine-boned, sexy way, and if her latest, AN AMERICAN AFFAIR, is any indication, she is now approaching middle age with all her beauty and talent intact and growing. Here she plays a character named Catherine Caswell, and if that last name rings a slight bell, it's meant to -- for the movie deals sidelong with the affair between a certain famous U.S. President and a equally famous blond actress. Written by Alex Metcalf and directed by William Olsson, the film was generally trashed upon release and unfairly so. Though certainly not great, it offers several good performances -- Ms Mol's in particular -- and some lovely directorial touches, one of the best being how news of a certain event is passed between students in a Catholic High School. Cameron Bright (Birth, Running Scared) grows up a bit here, and though he gets off to a rocky start, his performance improves, even as the movie wavers a bit in its tone and its telling.

Gigantic is one of those films that seems to polarize people. It's an odd one, small and very quiet. Hardly anyone raises a voice, even when one character is getting mugged and mauled. But it has much on its mind -- to the credit of its co-writer (with Adam Nagata) and director Matt Aselton. Two lovely and talented leads Paul Dano (I hope he will appreciate my use of that first adjective because the wonderful sense of quiet trust he projects leads me to choose it) and Zooey Deschanel help ground the movie, and fine older actors like John Goodman, Jane Alexander and Ed Asner, provide some meaty and delicious moments. There's a mystery at the heart of Gigantic that remains unsolved. My gut feeling is that our hero imagines certain things (out of guilt, perhaps?), but feel free to create your own scenario. Either way, the movie is worth a watch.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Robert Siegel's BIG FAN: an unusual look at the sports mania of the American male

The Onion once did a wildly hilarious and on-the-mark piece about the American male view of sports as all-important by simply having the male response to sports parrot the manner in which intelligent people respond to their government and its actions. Not being at all a sports fan, TrustMovies approached the new film BIG FAN with some trepidation. No need. This is the first

directorial outing for Robert Siegel, whose only previous film writing credits are for The Wrestler and -- yes! -- The Onion Movie (Siegel was formerly Editor-in-Chief of The Onion). It is difficult to imagine a smoother transition.

On what appears to be a minuscule budget and in less than 90 minutes, Mr. Siegel (shown, right) tells a terrific story -- funny, sad, surprising and utterly believable -- that skewers our sports craziness without ever once seeming cheap or obvious. The writer/
director has chosen his main character and situation -- not to men-
tion his lead actor, Patton Oswalt -- exceedingly well. Oswalt (shown on the poster above and in the photos below) plays Paul, a parking garage attendant who works nights and listens (and makes frequent calls) to a local sports radio station. A massive NY Giants fan, he lives with his mom (Marcia Jean Kurtz, below right), and some of the movie's most excruciatingly funny scenes involve Paul's late-night calls, as his mother screams at him to shut up.

During his days, Paul and his friend Sal (another indispensable performance from the always fine Kevin Corrigan, below, right) spend their time "in-season" listening to the game from the parking lot of the stadium. Then one night, as they pass a gas station... Enough plot-telling. Siegel makes excellent use of one single, and therefore allowable, coincidence, and from that his movie takes off into very interesting territory where he is able to legitimately explore the extremes of fandom, family and friendship.

Mr. Siegel appears to have cast his movie himself, an unusual move for a first-time director, I think, but one that has certainly paid off. Every role, down to the smallest, seems well-performed, with most of the actors (outside of Oswalt, Kurtz, Corrigan and Michael Rapaport, who does a fine turn late in the film) unknown to me. In Patton Oswalt, Siegel has combined performer with performance in a manner that, were there any real movie justice, would win the "big" award. Just look at that mug, below. Has ever a face corralled more empathy? Unlike The Wrestler, which, for me, proved eventually overbearing, obvious and contrived, Big Fan never goes beyond what works. And it keeps surprising us. This is a directorial debut of which Siegel should be very, very proud. (But not too proud: We don't want to see him come down with Hollywood-itis, also known as a fat head.)

Big Fan opens this Friday, August 28, via First Independent Pictures, in New York City, at the Angelika Film Center, and Philadelphia at Landmark's Ritz at the Bourse, with other locations to follow soon. Check complete city/showtime schedule here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

STILL WALKING: Hirokazu Kore-eda's latest crosses cultures with ease and grace

There's hardly a moment in STILL WALKING, the new movie from Japanese film-
maker Hirokazu Kore-eda (shown below), that will not resonate clearly and strongly to American movie-goers. This film -- about three generations of Japanese mixing it up at the grandparents'

home over a two-day period meant to honor the life and death of a fallen son -- is so rich in incident and feeling, and so humane in its understanding of the needs and desires of all three generations that it engulfs an audience quickly and nearly completely.

From the initial scene of cooking, with a mother and daughter exchanging a recipe, gossip and a deftly placed insult or two, all the details seem natural and right. This scenes leads into another that introduces the grandfather, and again, the details are spot-on. Exposition is expertly buried in dialog that creates character deftly, line by line (both for the speaker and the spoken about). Before we know it, we're neck-deep in the lives of everyone on view -- chuckling, wincing and feeling for them as we might our own family. Hirokazu has given us two other worthwhile films, After Life and Nobody Knows, but neither comes close to the heavy-duty identification factor embedded in this one -- for obvious reasons.

After Life deals with exactly that, and though the writer/director puts his own creative spin, alternately light-hearted and heart-breaking, on the concept, a film that takes place post-death is not going to seem a shoo-in for been there/done that. Nobody Knows, on the other hand, gives us a family of children recently abandoned by its mother, its fortunes now in the hands of the oldest boy. This is not the stuff of major identification. In Still Walking, so specific and real is each detail Horakazu presents that, while we easily identify with the family, we can also appreciate cultural differences. One example: the manner in which the grandmother treats the young man who shows up each year to commemorate the dead son.

The filmmaker skirts sentimentality in his use of the butterfly, appearing first via dialog and then twice in visual reality. Yet his agile contrast of the grandmother's old-fashioned understanding of what this means against that of her grandson's more realistic view (it's the adult son who must provide some workable middle ground) turns this situation into a means of uniting the generations by honoring the limited understanding of each. While the films of Ozu may come to mind here, there 's another recent film that makes an interesting comparison: Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours. That one's as French as this one is Japanese, but both embrace three generations of a family: life, death, change and the natural world.

There is so much to cherish in Still Walking that I hope it finds the large foreign-film audience it deserves. Opening theatrically this Friday, August 28, via IFC Films, it will play in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the Angelika Film Center while also available On-Demand, beginning this Wednesday August 26. Check your local TV reception provider for details.

The above photos (from the film and of its writer/director)
are courtesy of Out Now! Image Gallery.

Monday, August 24, 2009

YOU, THE LIVING continues Andersson's look at us -- and our skewed world

If Roy Andersson (shown below) had decided to call his newest film More Songs from the Second Floor, I wouldn't have minded a bit, for that's really what it is. His latest endeavor, YOU, THE LIVING (Du levande in its original Swedish) is so similar in style, content, and feeling to his earlier film Songs from the Second Floor that it seems almost a sequel. There is no

other moviemaker like Mr. Andersson (in my experience, at least), though in his recent film Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman comes surprisingly close to a similar feeling, content and even some shades of Andersson's poetic and quite beautiful style. (Kaufman's film tells a long shaggy-dog tale of inter-
connected characters, while Andersson is content to give us short scenes and stories that are connected by theme, humanity and the director's singular style.)

If you have not seen either of Andersson's movies, I'm going to suggest viewing You, the Living first. It's been several years since I encountered Songs from the Second Floor, but as I recall, that earlier film deals in more major events and themes: religion, finance (as does this new one), the Holocaust and even a bizarre and unsettling tale of a young girl chosen for a very special place in society. Its use of the symbolic is also more apparent. Was it because I saw "Songs" prior to "You" that the former film impressed me more? I'll probably never know until I watch both again, perhaps in quick succession. In any case, because Mr. Andersson has given us a second film that adheres so closely to the constraints of the first, You, the Living does have a certain more-of-the-same quality. When that quality flirts with -- and then utterly seduces -- greatness, we ought not discount it.

What makes this movie-maker great? He gives us life, ourselves and our world anew -- and in the kind of scope and depth that he alone achieves. The manner in which he frames his shots (not to mention their content!), his use of minimal dialog that rings of poetry and truth, his quiet and beautiful adaptation of "special effects" to create something meaningful and new: All of this combines to create magnificence. (You's use of the apartment building that moves like a train is simple, rapturous and unlike anything I've seen, and the film's final moments are utterly mysterious and fraught with... hope. Or is it menace?)

Andersson also shows us how the individual links to society in ways often unhealthy and hypocritical but seemingly inevitable and deeply sorrowful. Yet there's plenty of humor, too, dark as it may be. Even as I write about You, my mind goes back to Songs, and I suspect I am already eliding the two. So don't wait: Watch one, then the other; revel and be abashed.

Palisades Tartan is releasing You, the Living -- which recently played a two-week run at New York City's Film Forum. I hope it is now making its way around the country's foreign film hot spots, though I was not able to find any link to further theatrical playdates. Eventually, one imagines, it will be available on DVD for the kind of multiple viewings that Andersson's films deserve.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Jennifer Steinman's MOTHERLAND makes "streaming" debut; Q&A with filmmaker

Grief is a tricky subject for a filmmaker. How do you do it justice without alien-
ating your audience by providing a near, non-stop downer? The best use Trust-
Movies has lately seen of the grief motif came from Incendiary, the adaptation by Sharon Maguire of the Chris Cleave novel, which went straight to video. This week another film on the subject -- MOTHERLAND, a documentary about a particular, maybe the most difficult, kind of grief -- also goes straight to video. In this case, the release is via streaming, as Motherland makes its debut from up-and-coming distributor Gigantic Digital, the company that earlier this year brought us the very unusual documentary Must Read After My Death.

What kind of grief, you ask, is the most difficult? Experiencing the death of one's child. In Motherland, producer/director Jennifer Steinman (above) tracks six women -- each of whom has lost a child and is still attempting to come to terms with her grief -- as they journey to South Africa to spend some time helping orphaned children cope with life without their parents. As is pointed out during the movie, taking an active/positive step in helping others seems to do more to assuage grief than remaining alone and wrapped up in it.

Motherland is a fairly simple movie, simply told. Steinman allows each woman to provide the back-story of how her child died, and the reasons are as varied as you might expect: murder, suicide and accidental death (whether the fault be the victim's or not, we don't always learn. It doesn't matter, of course: Death is death). Some of the deaths are more recent than others, and this, too, does not seem to matter: Grief goes on. Four of the women are white and two are black, providing the documentary with the double meaning of its title. For these women, Africa is indeed the motherland, even as the movie itself offers an unusual look at the inclusive, unending landscape of mothering.

During the course of the film, it is one of the two black women, Mary Helena (shown above), who has the most difficulty. She suffers not just from her grief but from the results of a recent stroke, from which she has only partially recovered. Perhaps because so much of the movie seems a bit cut-and-dried -- the women suffer; they go to Africa; they work with the children; they are helped -- Mary Helena provides the film with pretty much its only sense of immediate conflict. Her story and struggle holds our interest perhaps a bit more than do those of the others women. By the finale we are fairly certain that the others in the crew have found renewed strength and courage through their South African work; about Mary Helena, we are not so sure (see the interview below for an update on this).

Steinman's very winning movie -- considering the subject matter, it maintains an almost preternaturally positive attitude -- has already won this years' Emerging Visions Audience Award at the South by Southwest Film Festvial, as well as the 2009 Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival's Jury Prize for Best Feature and Best Documentary at the 2009 California Independent Film Festival. I would call it a "must" for anyone interested in a means of getting through and beyond the grief state. It should also prove worthwhile for those interested in South Africa today -- and in the role of women as caregivers. (Try to imagine a film like this about men making a trip abroad to deal with their grief? Not likely.) Motherland make its streaming debut this Wednesday, August 26, and Gigantic Releasing's very affordable $2.99 price (which allows viewers three full days in which to watch the film as many times as they want) is another plus factor.


TrustMovies talked to filmmaker Jennifer Steinman -- in NYC for a brief time preparing for the release of her movie -- by phone last Friday morning for perhaps a half an hour. Here's what we learned:

TrustMovies: I notice there was no writing credit for the film. Why?

Jennifer Steinman: I didn’t think that I actually wrote this film; it’s primarily a verité film. So, really, I didn’t write that much except a little bit of introduction. I certainly did not write the story – I think that it wrote itself.

That’s fine with me: In fact, I often wonder, when I see writing credits in a documentary, what exactly this means. It always seems a bit “fudged.”

Can you tell me something about how you first got involved in this subject and the consequent film.

One of the women in the film is actually a really good friend of mine. When she lost her son in a head-on automobile collision, I saw the depth of the pain she had to go through. She was really my inspiration for the film. I had watched her over the years, dealing with her grief. I had never known anyone who lost a child before, and when it happens, it is so specific and different than other types of grief. I also saw how this really brought out in me, and in others, the reaction of, Wow -- could I survive if this happened to me?

I think we all know that we will lose our parents and perhaps a spouse or partner, but when the death involves a son or daughter, this brings up that sense -- for everybody, I think -- How can I deal with this?

Around this time, I was actually planning a trip to Africa for myself, and I was interested is doing volunteer work there. I had ten years of volunteer work under my belt already. I believe that volunteering is a really healing thing to do: the idea being that giving becomes a kind of healing. People often think, after tragedy strikes, “Oh, I must take care of myself now.” But actually, taking care of others is a much more "healing" kind of thing to do.

So then, the two things came together: Africa – and the mothers who had lost their children?

Yes. I called my friend and asked her, “What do you think of this idea?” She immediately burst into tears, and she said, “Yes, this is what I need. Let’s do it.”

Where did the other women come from?

I contacted my friend's grief counselor first and through her got several more referrals. Then I sent out a blast email to grief groups, counseling centers and children’s hospitals. By then I had three women and had only planned on taking four. But then, within a three day period, I got hundreds of responses, with women sending letters, pictures and stories about their children. Now I had to figure out how to somehow get the number down. So I ended up taking six instead of four.

How long was it between your first idea of doing this until you actually left on the trip?

About five months.

That’s fast.

Yes -- we were definitely on “warp” speed. It was pretty amazing. I conceived of the idea in July, and I was thinking maybe we’d have things together by the following spring. But then when we started to put it together, we realized that with everyone's hectic schedules the only time people could conceivably do this was in December. So the next thing I knew, just five months after I conceived of the idea, we had six women and a film crew and we were on an airplane headed to Africa.

How long were you actually over there?

I was in Africa for a month, and we shot for 17 days.

Wow -- it seems longer when you are watching the film.

It felt longer for us while we were there, too. It was sort of like time slowed down for us.

As much as I liked and identified with all the women, it was Mary Helena who proved by far the most interesting in so many ways. Perhaps because she is the one having such a difficult time. What has happened with Mary Helena?

I talk to her quite often and she is doing well now. She really is. In fact, when she saw the film, she said, “Oh, boy, I sure was a mess here. I hope people know that I am OK now.”

That is really good to know.

Yes, because she had the physical problems -- the stroke -- in addition to the grief of her loss. Her son Aaron had started a book before he died that never was finished and so she is now finishing it.

The other thing to come out of the trip – and the film – is that program begun by one set of parents….

Yes, Anne and her husband Jim have started a program dedicated to their daughter Grace called the Grace Magill Memorial Project. It’s a school-based mental health program run by The Edgewood Center for Children and Families in San Francisco. The program's purpose is to educate teens about mental illness and and to try to eliminate the stigma attached to it. The other Moms in the film are also very active in their communities as well. I think they all realize that if they can find a way to give back and to help others, that helps to create some positive meaning out of their tragedies.

How did you come to release you the film via the “streaming” mode – and via Gigantic?

After the documentary premiered at SXSW last March, I had several distribution offers, and I was wading through all of them and trying to figure out the best strategy for the film: Should I self-distribute? What would create the most revenue? And most important, how can I get this out to the widest possible audience? We looked into a limited theatrical release in NY and LA. But for the amount of energy and time and money this would take, it just didn’t seem practical. I thought about my audience: Who is it, really: only a few art house viewers in New York and LA, or is it moms in Iowa and Idaho who can’t go out this weekend but would really want to be able to see the film now, at home and at a reasonable price? I realized it was the latter. My ultimate goal is for my film to reach as many people as possible. And I was most impressed with Gigantic as the platform for making that happen -- both their model and strategy, and the support of people who work there.

Did you work with Mark Lipsky?

Oh, yes, and he is amazing and so dedicated, and he loves the film. He really wants to get our film out there! This is on-line cinema and the goal is to show that people are really watching movies on their computers. We hope this will also show that a first-time movie can reach a really wide audience. And maybe even make some money!

Anything else you'd like to say while I've got you?

Just that Motherland will be available online starting Wednesday, August 26, via Gigantic Releasing. Meanwhile, it is still playing on the festival circuit, so for those who want to see it on a big screen, you can check out the playdates here.